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Book Reviews   |    
Unto Us A Child: Abuse and Deception in the Catholic Church
Reviewed by Maxine Harris, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2003; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.54.10.1417
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by Donald T. Phillips; Irving, Texas, Tapestry Press, 2002, 238 pages, $24.95

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Donald T. Phillips, the author of Unto Us a Child: Abuse and Deception in the Catholic Church, has written a moving account of one family's tragic struggle with the aftermath of sexual and physical abuse. The seven surviving members of the Albert family have lived with mental illness, severe alcohol abuse, poverty, underemployment, and fractured relationships—all, the author suggests, as a result of their abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the Catholic Church.

After they were removed from the family home because of profound poverty and neglect, the seven Albert children were placed in a Catholic orphanage. While they were there, at least four of the five boys were physically and sexually abused. One of the girls became pregnant by a priest and was sent to a Catholic-run home for unwed mothers, where she gave birth to—and relinquished custody of—an infant son. All the children suffered emotional deprivation and abuse. At every turn, the caretakers who were supposed to be helping them were the source of disappointment or outright betrayal and torment.

When, as adults, the Alberts attempted to get help from the Catholic Church, they experienced what felt to at least one of the brothers like "being abused all over again." The church officials denied the accusations and countered that the Alberts were lying and merely seeking financial gain. In the courts, the Alberts again met defeat, in part because of the powerful and well-funded church lobby. Only in their support of one another and their shared knowledge of what went on in their childhoods did they find any relief or solace.

The strength of Phillips' account lies in his ability to tell a good story. As a professional writer, he knows how to engage the reader in the lives of his characters. Unfortunately, he does not place those lives in the larger context of what we know about physical and sexual abuse. Other than some commentary in the afterword, Phillips does not refer to the literature on abuse, nor does he help us to see the Alberts' story as more than a personal tragedy.

Although it is certainly true that the Albert family sees sexual and physical abuse at the core of their current struggles, and Phillips is telling their story, the picture that emerges is far more complex. Extreme poverty, with all its attendant consequences, precedes the abuse that the children experience. And their mother's struggle to raise nine children without support or even a modicum of personal control is the story that lays the groundwork for the story that Phillips has chosen to tell.

Although Unto Us a Child is an absorbing account of the impact of abuse, it leaves the reader wishing that Phillips had chosen to make some of the connections that would have made his work a more significant contribution.

Dr. Harris is chief executive officer for clinical affairs of Community Connections in Washington, D.C.

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